Juking the school stats

This probably shows incipient OCD, but the UK primary school league tables have a bizarre fascination. Partly because of the fact that five schools were disqualified for cheating, among them two Roman Catholic schools. 🙂

However cheering this may be to anti-theists, I have to resist the temptation to make too much of it, as I suspect that cheating is built into the very nature of the enterprise.

Teachers generally hate the league tables, for far too many good reasons to repeat here. But here’s a flavour of teachers’ feelings. Interviewed by the BBC, Steve Sinnott of the National Union of Teachers said

“…League tables are beyond repair. Attempts to modify league tables only serve to emphasise their unfairness.”
And the National Association of Head Teachers said in a statement: “There is no doubt that at best, league tables of raw test data simply show where rich people live. ..

To get back to the OCD bit, and as an illustration of how the whole enterprise is shady, I ran the both the top schools and bottom schools list through Excel to get an average value for Special Educational Needs (SEN) pupils. SEN refers to children with physical and mental disabilities. You would imagine that SEN schools would be unfairly disadvantaged, but such schools are excluded from meeting the SATs targets. So the SEN % of pupils does not include those children who get specialist provision for disabilities. The percentage refers to SEN children in mainstream education.

Anyway, it appears that the average percentage of SEN children across all local authorities that have schools in the top or bottom leagues is 45.27% The lowest I could spot, in a quick scan) was Leicestershire at 10.6%. The highest was Warwickshire with a stunning 71.8% of its children classified as having special educational needs.

There are certainly league table advantages in having children classified as Special Needs. The more SEN kids an authority has, the more credit it gets for any improvements and, possibly, the better claim it has on some funds.

You can’t blame hard-pressed schools and local authorities for wanting to claim to have lots of SEN kids. All the same, there are many reasons for disliking the outcome. I’ll just spill out a couple before I bore even myself out of reading on.

Firstly. good old-fashioned social science and labelling theory. If you are a child living in Warwickshire, etc, you might feel a little odd if you lack an SEN label, but elsewhere SEN kids generally still remain in the slight minority. I can’t imagine that it does much for your educational self-confidence to get the label. (And I bet kids can still be as vicious to the kids they see as “thick” as they were when I was at school.)

With our kids getting all their details collected in national databases, an SEN evaluation, that may be prompted more by local educational policy than by a true assessment of a child’s capacities, might still be hanging around the kid’s records until they are old enough to apply for a job or a place at university.
Secondly, what a depressing picture of UK kids, with almost half of them judged to be unable to meet the government’s joyless and inflexible standards without extra prodding.

Thirdly,the SEN figures suggest how deeply the targets have cut into how we present and structure education. (Taking up a general point made by Ian Curtis in last year’s TV series The Trap about the corrupting effect of targets on the quality of public services.

(Frivolous aside. The “juking the stats” phrase in the title was of course lifted from the Wire, whose name be eternally praised. As it does with more or less any social issue, the Wire showed, in a handy easy-to-swallow tv show format, how the concern for SAT scores and stats can actually prevent effective teaching and learning. Watch Series 4. Again. Please.)